HR Management & Compliance, Talent

How to Create a Psychological Safety Net for Employees

As we deal with the coronavirus pandemic’s fallout, employees everywhere are craving security. Nearly 1 million people have applied for unemployment benefits each week since March, raising the total number of unemployed workers in the United States to more than 16 million, at the time of this writing. These figures are grim, but they point to an important employer opportunity to improve psychological safety in the workplace.

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Source: James Steidl / Shutterstock

Psychological safety nets come in a variety of forms. When I started a company in Europe, I discovered the unique approach Germans take in terms of standard severance pay andemployee security benefits. There, receiving a formal dismissal entitles most workers to a generous severance package that can last for half a year or longer.

While I don’t necessarily recommend that you offer 6-month severances, I do challenge you to consider how your team would react if they were offered this type of workplace safety net. If employees weren’t worried about job security, would more of them communicate openly in the workplace? From my experience, the answer is yes. And stronger communication, no matter how it’s achieved, always benefits your organization.

The Importance of Psychological Safety in the Workplace

Let’s be honest: Team members won’t tell you what they really think if they don’t feel psychologically safe. But you need their input to make better decisions because companies handle threats and opportunities better when employees feel comfortable saying what’s on their minds. This means you have to help employees feel safe.

This type of give-and-take reminds me of a marriage. When you’re married, you make a commitment to your spouse. You agree to listen and learn so that you’ll be happier together. Leaders can do the same thing with their employees, but the sad truth is that they usually don’t. Instead, they tend to make choices based on how things used to be. They’re not on the front lines, so their mental pictures of the business are from months (if not years) ago.

Under normal circumstances, this is a shame. During COVID-19, this is a setup for disaster. To navigate the mid- and post-pandemic landscape, employers need to know what the day-to-day operations look like and what employees are really thinking. If employees don’t feel comfortable speaking out for fear of losing their jobs, then failure will be imminent.

How to Create Open Communication at Work

Are you wondering how you can overcome the barriers to employee security? Here are three effective ways to communicate with employees and promote a psychologically safe environment:

1. Initiate Conversations with Employees

Don’t wait for an employee to come to you with ideas or concerns. Openly ask questions like “How much do you believe what I proposed is the right choice?” and “On a scale from 1 to 10, how much do you think we should move forward with this plan?” If you suspect someone is holding back, set up a time to talk privately.

Start consistently and skillfully asking for feedback. Asking “What do you really think?” is good, but asking for specifics is better. And don’t ignore the hard questions. Your team will be more open to providing personal feedback if you ask questions like “How did this make you feel?” or “Do I do that often?”

2. Control Your Responses

Resist the need to interrupt, go on the defensive, or receive validation. If you start overriding your employees when they speak up, you’ll lose their trust. “You’re the boss!” won’t help you make better decisions for the company. Ask for employees’ honesty, and learn from what they say. Even if you don’t agree with an employee’s interpretation or recommendation, express sincere appreciation.

As you become more skillful and comfortable with this process, your team members will see that it’s OK to lay out the truth. They’ll start to pipe up during meetings without needing a nudge, and you’ll know your processes are working. If what your employees say hurts or angers you, evaluate your reactions later. Own those emotional responses, and leverage them to become a better version of yourself. Just don’t tear into a worker who is willing to be vulnerable.

3. Use an Interrupter Phrase

One of the most effective ways tocommunicate with employeesis to come up with a phrase they can use to break through to you when you’re in full-steam-ahead mode. For instance, let’s say you’re amped up about an idea and an employee can’t get a word in edgewise. He or she can give you a verbal signal—saying an uncommon phrase like “purple elephant”—to indicate that you should slow down.

This type of interruptor shifts the conversation and provides team members with the opportunity to share their voices and opinions. At the same time, it stops you from being so blinded by passion that you miss obvious red flags. The best part is, it’s user-friendly because it’s not as aggressive as “I disagree” or “I’d like to say something.”

Although your employees would likely appreciate hefty severances, you don’t have to change up your benefits to attain psychological safety in the workplace. Instead, encourage workers to feel comfortable by implementing these three leadership techniques.

Krister Ungerböck is the founder of the global Talk SHIFT movement. He’s a sought-after leadership communication speaker, an award-winning CEO, and an author. He’s been featured in national publications such as NPR, Forbes, and Entrepreneur for his fresh perspective on leadership, business growth, emotional intelligence, and employee engagement. Talk SHIFTs are simple, powerful, and practical changes to our words that can transform frustrating communication at work and at home. Talk SHIFTs adapt best practices from the relationship research world to create great leaders while applying the best thinking from the business leadership world to create great families.